I’m a Southern Presbyterian

In light of a number of articles lately on a potential split in the PCA and given that some PCA churches have already decided to leave for other denominations, I thought I would like to repost an article I wrote a year ago.

Recently I was talking with others in my denomination about the challenges we face as a denomination. There is much to be proud of as a denomination. There are many, many godly pastors and elders who are leading their flocks and preaching the gospel. Many people are being discipled and growing in grace. Children are being taught the catechism and learning to love the Word. These excellent things.

But there are great challenges that we face as a denomination. Some of the greatest challenges are doctrinal ones. Federal Vision, the New Perspective on Paul, egalitarianism, theistic evolution, the historicity of Adam, and the inerrancy of Scripture are all issues that must be discussed.

As I considered this, a thought came to me. I am a southern Presbyterian. My family are southern Presbyterian back for many, many generations. We go all the way back to Scottish Presbyterians who came to South Carolina in the 1700s. In the 1970s, the PCA was formed when the southern conservatives broke off from the southern liberals. Of course, there was more to it than that, but that’s a good summary of events. Many people from all over the country have been drawn to the PCA because we are serious about upholding orthodoxy.

While I’m not suggesting that anyone leave, I had a thought about the PCA and those who wish it were different. For those who wish the PCA were more liberal or more progressive on any number of issues, there are denominations that already are that way. For those who wish the PCA would adopt Federal vision teachings, there is a denomination that already does that. For those who wish the PCA would be more strict, there are denominations that would suit too.

But what else is there for a southern Presbyterian? Where can I go? This is my denomination.

Original Vision and the Authority of Scripture

In an attempt to better understand the founding of our denomination, I have been reading the newsletters that the Presbyterian Churchmen United (PCU) published in the early 1970s. I have always heard that the inerrancy of Scripture was one of the main reasons the founders of the PCA left the PC(US) and formed the PCA. An essay from the second PCU newsletter confirms that. Here is an excerpt from an address by the Rev. Joe Morecraft III. Given the current discussions surrounding the interpretations of Genesis, it seems to me that there truly is nothing new under the sun:

It has been said that the divisions in the Presbyterian Church, U.S. have been brought on simply because of a difference of emphasis. One side emphasizes the social aspect of the Gospel, and the other side emphasizes the individual aspect, we are told; and for the Gospel to be complete, both sides are needed. Therefore, they say, let us throw down our arms and get together. But that is not the correct evaluation of the situation in the Presbyterian Church, U. S. I wish it were.

The problem is not one of emphasis but of diametrically opposed systems of doctrine – – one leading to the Living Christ of the Scriptures, the other leading away from Him. The differences among us are so deep that they are Irreconcilable, as they stand now, unless one side changes or compromises their present convictions. …

The old, historic and biblical view of the Bible has left our seminaries, our pulpits, and our colleges, to a large degree. In exchange for it we hear such things as: “The Bible becomes the Word of God to me as God sees fit, but no book lying on a table can be called the Word of God,” or “The Bible contains the Word of God mixed with the erring opinions of men,” or “The Bible contains the infallible Word of God clothed in the fallible words of men.”

A southern Presbyterian seminary professor said that he did not care what the Bible said, he wanted to know what God said. Another one said that there were parts of the Old Testament, such as the story of Jericho, which should not be in the Bible. As the result of the prevalent view, I was taught in seminary that when studying Genesis as an historical document, the first eleven chapters were not to be considered at all, and chapters twelve through fifty, as well at the rest of the Old Testament, were to be read with a critical eye. I was taught in seminary that Moses was not the author of the first five books of the Bible, although the bulk of the Bible and Jesus Christ Himself affirm that he was. In other words, Jesus cannot always be relied upon. He too can be mistaken, for He was wrong in His view of the Old Testament.

I was taught in seminary that much of the prophecy of the Old Testament such as Isaiah and Daniel is not prophecy at all, but is texts written in prophetic form after the events took place about which they were to prophesy. That is basic dishonesty.

I was taught in seminary that Paul misinterpreted the Old Testament at some points in his Epistles, thus making his teaching unreliable.

In other words, enough has been said to see that, in our seminaries and pulpits, the Bible is regarded as a book which cannot be relied upon, but which needs human correction, clarification, and supplementation. These opinions that: 1) the Bible becomes the Word of God; 2) the Bible contains the Word of God mixed with human opinions; and 3) the Bible is the infallible Word in fallible human words, make Truth purely subjective. What sounds good to me is truth from God, regardless of how it sounds to you, they say. God could contradict Himself, in that case, in speaking to each of us, and if so we could be sure of nothing we held as being Truth. We would have nothing of which to give testimony.

Again, if the Bible contains the Word of God mixed with human opinion, and if we can distinguish it from error, we would be placing our minds in such an exalted position that papal infallibility would be child’s play.

And if it is true that the Word is always clothed in fallible words, like a mask, then we could never get behind the mask and know the one Living GOD.

Rev. Morecraft goes on to address how this view of Scripture is then applied by the Neo-Orthodox to the doctrine of the atonement:

The Doctrine of the Atonement, if a man’s theology is to have any respect at all, must be clear-cut, certain and rigidly adherent to the truths of Scripture, going as far as they go, and stopping where they stop.

Two generations ago, our seminaries unashamedly taught the following about the Death of Jesus Christ: It was space-time event in history, in which the Son of God turned away the wrath and satisfied the justice of an angry GOD. The Son willingly gave Himself to die because of the Father’s love for sinners. This satisfaction was made by Jesus being put to death as a substitute in the place of many sinners, taking upon Himself the punishment and hell which our sins deserve and which God’s justice required.

If there is any doctrine which enrages Neo-Orthodoxy and which sets its teeth on edge, it is this doctrine which we have just mentioned, called in the Bible—Propitiation. One Presbyterian seminary professor said that propitiation should never be in any translation of the Bible anywhere.

Another seminary professor said without further explanation, “A cross-centered theology is a bad theology.” In Neo-Orthodoxy the Atonement could mean several things: 1) It was the releasing of Christ’s life in which mankind participates; 2) By it Christ lifted the sins of humanity by identification with those sins and overwhelmingly abolishing those sins by His own Deity; 3) In it the Electing God becomes the Elected Man (i.e., in Christ all men are elected), and bearing the rejection of God for the world, Christ becomes the only Rejected Man; 4) In it, God, out of His almighty power, simply says, “I forgive everybody,” with no regard to His Justice and Holiness. If God did this, we surely would stand in respect of His power, but we could never trust His love.

At the heart of Neo-Orthodoxy’s view of the Atonement lies one of three things: 1) repudiation of the supreme importance of the Cross; 2) an implicit universalism saying that all humanity will be saved; 3) the sovereignty
of man, who is able to thwart God’s plan, ruin His purposes and disavow His election.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as lesser biblical miracles, in the minds of many today are seen as being performed not in verifiable human history, which can be given attestation, but in the realm of faith. In other words, if you had been there whenJesus fed the Five Thousand with bread and fish, you would have gone home hungry.

A Presbyterian seminary professor said that it did not matter to him whether or not Jesus arose from the grave, he would still be a Christian. That sounds noble, but what if Jesus Christ is still in the grave today?” He did not genuinely arise from the grave in the same body In which He suffered, we have nothing. The Cross through the Open Tomb gives the Christian religion its power and uniqueness.

Rev. Morecraft concludes his address with a call to stand for the truth even if that means facing persecution and ridicule:

In conclusion, I pray that it can be seen that some things are not negotiable. There are some things which we cannot compromise or give up, even at the cost of peace. For, to compromise in the least degree on what the Bible claims for itself–total and unconditional authority in everything it says; or to compromise at all on what Christ did for us in accomplishing our salvation-satisfied an angry God, is to deny Christ, betray Christianity, and stand with the antichrist.

There is coming a time and now is, when you and I as Bible-believing Presbyterians must publicly and boldly take a stand in the face of persecution, ridicule and mockery, and say with Martin Luther so long ago, “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen.”

Looking back on James “Bebo” Elkin’s fruitful career with RUF

In preparation for writing my article on the history of RUF, I had the honor of interviewing James “Bebo” Elkin, one of the founding fathers of Reformed University Fellowship. Bebo Elkin, along with Mark Lowery, Jimmy Turner, Ford Williams, and Bill Smith are the men most responsible for bringing RUF into being. This group formed out of a group of friends who attended Belhaven College together in the 1960s. They worked together in the leadership of the Westminster Fellowship (of the PCUS, hereafter “WF”) at Belhaven. It was there, through WF, that these men got a taste for campus ministry. After Belhaven, the friends moved on to Reformed Theological Seminary.

After graduation, Mark Lowery was called to work with WF at the University of Southern Mississippi. Unlike many of the WFs across the country, WF at USM was conservative and faithful to the gospel. At the time, most of the WF campus ministries had become very liberal and were teaching a type of social gospel. To help with the work of reviving the campus ministry at USM, Lowery brought in a friend from seminary, Bebo Elkin.
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RUF: A Vision for Reformed Campus Ministry

“RUF? What’s that?” As a college student I was asked that question many times. RUF, or Reformed University Fellowship, was the hub of my college life. It was where my friends were. It was my safe haven away from home. It was what I looked forward to all week. But most importantly, it was where I matured in my faith and learned to love Reformed doctrine.

And that was the point. When RUF, also known as Reformed University Ministries (RUM), was first started, the goal was to equip college-aged covenant children in the faith, to reach out with the gospel to unbelievers on campus, to teach college students how to develop a Reformed world-and-life view, and to funnel these students back into the churches ready to serve. This was the dream of men like Mark Lowery, Ford Williams, Jimmy Turner, and James “Bebo” Elkin.

In the early 1970s, the world was in upheaval. Politically and culturally, the United States was transitioning away from the “good old days” of post-war America. Denominations like the PCUS were trending towards the social gospel and away from traditional Reformed teachings like inerrancy of Scripture. It was during this time that the PCA was formed. Along with a new denomination, a desire for a new campus ministry was born.

On campus at the University of Southern Mississippi, Mark Lowery was feeling called to campus ministry. He was particularly concerned with how to carry out campus ministry from a Reformed perspective.

The idea of taking the institutional church to the campus was not novel to Lowery, who had attended a Westminster Fellowship (PC-US) while in college at USM. Nationally, however, the Westminster Fellowships on most college campuses had succumbed to social gospel ideology. At Southern Mississippi, the Westminster Fellowship had remained biblically sound, but had not known much recent success. Parachurch groups were now in vogue. In 1971, Westminster Fellowship at USM found itself without a campus minister and approached Lowery, though he was not ordained. (Joe Maxwell, A History of RUM at the Millennium, [Atlanta, Georgia: Reformed University Ministries, 1999], 16)

One of the biggest challenges in the early years of RUM was convincing the denomination that a church-based campus ministry was worth their time, money, and effort. The prevailing opinion in the PCA was that campus evangelism and discipleship should be left to the efforts of parachurch organizations such as Campus Crusade and InterVarsity. Others, such as Mark Lowery favored a “Presbyterian and Reformed approach.” The report from the Sixth General Assembly stated his reasoning:

This church-based approach “commends itself to many because it promotes a ministry entirely agreeable to the doctrinal standards of our church. This may, in turn, result in greater fruitage of young life in dedication to Reformed-oriented spiritual life, Reformed doctrine, and an evangelistic outreach agreeable to Reformed doctrine. It may properly induce to membership in distinctly Presbyterian and Reformed churches, including the Presbyterian Church in America. (Ibid., 26)

Mark Lowery wanted a campus ministry where local presbyteries sponsored local campus ministers who would “equip students to serve” and “reach students for Christ.” The 1979 Manual for Campus Ministries set forth the goals that Lowery had developed in his work on campus at USM. The goals included growth in grace, evangelism and missions, fellowship and service, and a biblical world-and-life view. Continue reading